A few days ago, I did something I hadn’t done in 15 years: read an entire book in one day. When I was in the 8th grade, I remember polishing-off “The Third Eye” by Lois Duncan in an afternoon and an evening. Since then, I had’t read a novel in under 24 hours (Platonic dialogues and Aristotelian treatises don’t count).
The book that broke the streak was “The Looming Tower” by Lawrence Wright. The subject matter is depressing: it looks at 50+ years of history in the Middle East and the U.S., chronicling the rise of radical Islam in inimitable fashion, blending an abundance of details with a narrative style that breathlessly takes the reader from a 1940s cruise ship on the Atlantic to the mountains of Afghanistan to Lower Manhattan on 9/11.
After finishing Wright’s tour de force – I read it entirely in iBooks – I was impressed at how inseparable the history of the Kingdom Saudi Arabia is from the history of radicalism in the 20th century. Osama bin Laden’s father, Mohammed bin Laden, was a pivotal figure in the development of Saudi Arabia’s modern infrastructure. The unprecedented flow of money into the Kingdom from the early 1950s onward put enormous pressure on basic Arabian identity, which for centuries had been centered on an unchanging bedouin lifestyle.
Moreover, the bloody standoff in the Great Mosque in late 1979 – a surreal scene that involved a bunch of French commandos converting to Islam in a flash so that they could enter the building and attempt to gas the occupants (they failed) – resulted in a hard rightward turn for the country that matched similar shifts in Iran following the overthrow of the Shah. Many nations in the Arab world and in Central Asia became stricter after incidents like this one, including the shocking defeat by Israel in the Six Day War.
Sam Harris once said that we all live in Israel, since radicalism is closer than we think and we have to guard against its encroach. One could also say that we all live in Saudi Arabia, where all it takes is a major geopolitical event for the entire state to change course and become more assertive. Many Americans living in the U.S. after 9/11 can relate.
As the book comes to a close, Wright deftly switches between characters, chronicling their ups and downs in such a way that I had to stop and remind myself that these were all facts rather than fictions. My own memories of 9/11 are ones of confusion. I was in a windowless art studio at my high school when my mom came in and told me what happened. Because of how carefully controlled the school was, and due to the complete lack of mobile phones at the time, I didn’t see the TV coverage until we got home that afternoon.
I kept imagining fighter jets for some reason crashing into the World Trade Center. These days, I’m hard-pressed to think of what such a moment would be like with the abundance of media now at my disposal. Twitter, Facebook, et al have yet to have any moment like 9/11 or the O.J. Simpson chase or the JFK assassination that so defined TV as a medium. I feel like coverage would be both overwhelming and boring, with insight balanced out by inane clickbait and naysaying about how no one’s to blame etc.
Anyway, this post took a very different turn from where I thought it would go. Yes, I read a book in a day, and it reminded me of the huge gap between the effort of writing and the ease of reading. A book that surely took years to write could be finished in an afternoon. I see this even on a small scale with my own day job work, which can take hours each day but would in full take mere minutes to read through. It’s depressing in a way, but also invigorating – the quicker the reader can make it through, then perhaps the better job the writer did of coming up with something engaging. That was definitely the case with “The Looming Tower.”